Usually Kirk or Cathy post at this foodblog. They are busy today, so ed (from Yuma) is posting on a sushi bar (in San Diego).
It was about 6:30 on a Tuesday night and I had no firm plans. I wanted sushi (as usual) but I also was looking for something different -- because I had eaten with Sammy at Yaro on my previous visit to America's Finest Urbation, and I have been going to Sakura for nearly 10 years now. With the Fair jamming traffic heading north out of town, Kaito was out of the question. So I was driving through strip malls on Convoy just looking for something, anything interesting and different.
And then I saw it -- Shirahama -- with an open parking place right by the entrance. Nervously, I pulled into the parking spot, made sure I had my camera, and walked up to the door (the photo comes from later in the evening):
When I entered the tiny restaurant (10 seats at the bar and 4 small tables), it was empty except for the wizened itamae and his younger assistant. I had heard stories that the chef could be very rude and intolerant, particularly to people who did not speak Japanese. However, he gave me a friendly smile when I told him that I had heard that he served the best and most authentic sushi in San Diego and asked if I could be seated. I was allowed to take a seat at the sushi bar -- but not one of the seven prime places, which were reserved. Having been to Sakura, this seemed routine.
I let the older gentleman know that I was putting myself in his hands, that I liked everything and was particularly interested in what was different and special. I then remembered to say "Omakase," in very poor Japanese I am sure.
Soon after the young man had brought me my glass of ice water, the chef set two pieces of nigiri in front of me. "Bluefin and fluke," he said. I was happy right away. Instead of serving only pairs of items, most of the time I was given one piece of two different nigiri. It was also nice that he was speaking English to me. Made me feel more welcome:
All of the sushi was served to me on this tray with gari (natural color, of course) on the side. There was like a mini teapot with shoyu that poured a thin stream into a small bowl. No wasabi:
As soon as I began chewing the hirame, I understood why there was no wasabi available. It was spiced perfectly – the strong wasabi flavor burst in my mouth and complemented the mildly flavored flatfish perfectly. The maguro had a deep and full tuna flavor with just a light hint of wasabi in the background. It was a good start.
I was happy already. I don't recall ever encountering these before (at least not by those names). As I put each piece into my mouth, I closed my eyes and concentrated on the taste. The bream was both meaty and fishy – if that makes any sense. In a pleasant contrast, the amberjack was rich and creamy, suggesting hamachi, but with a more sophisticated and subtle flavor. Like many items that evening, the taste lingered in my mouth for a long time. I was smiling. "Very rich; better than hamachi," Kotani-san said to me, and I nodded in agreement.
Because of where I was sitting, I did not get to watch the chef's preparation, but he seems to have cut into the aji and stuffed it with sliced green onion. I don't normally think of scallion as a major flavor ingredient, but it was a perfect match with the fish and contributed much to the overall result.
The sake didn't look like anything special, certainly not as fatty as what I have been served at Sakura and Sushi Yaro. Nonetheless, it was still very rich and the flavor intensity pleased my palate. The finish was long and lingering. I have no idea how Kotani-san can make ordinary looking salmon taste so good.
By this point in the meal, the little restaurant was filling up. The seven reserved prime seats were filled with what seemed to be Japanese salarymen. Two of the small tables were full and the two chairs to my left were occupied by a younger couple who seemed more American and artsy – though he grew up in Tokyo, she in Hokkaido. You can see my empty seat next to her at the bar:
The back label of the bottle gives the English name for the chilled rice wine, "Fountains of Joy," and describes the flavor, "Silky and elegant at first sip, then a touch of peach and muscat at mid range, concluding with a soft and lingering finish." My thoughts exactly :-). It was a fountain of joy full of complex flavors. I even preferred it to the small glass of more expensive sake offered me by the couple on my left.
I have no memory of ever being served what was virtually an entire crab leg as sushi. To be honest, I'm impressed when a sushiya serves shreds of real crab in a California roll. The flavor of the crab leg was somewhat like Dungeness, being firm and sweet, but not as stringy in texture.
The who-knows-what-it-is from Japan was unique. While the texture was somewhat reminiscent of a toothsome scallop, the flavor was like neither scallop nor clam. Instead, the seafood had deep underlying tones that suggested earthy loam. Like nothing I have ever put in my mouth before.
Again the chef was playing with contrasts and similarities. The yellow Jack was firm and rich and complex with a touch of fishy tang in the background. The toro was all about rich, smooth, buttery flavors. And like many other items that evening, the taste stretched out over my tongue and lingered there.
Unlike much ama ebi, this was fully packed with shrimp flavors. The firm texture made it chewy as well, a texture almost like lobster. Very good.
By this point I was getting full and my palate was almost exhausted from focusing on such complex, unusual, and interesting flavors. But the nice couple on my left said that my visit would not be complete without having some of Shirahama's famous raw octopus sushi.
The shad was excellent with a depth of fishy flavor that filled my mouth until I washed my palate with some sake. The nama tako was amazing. The texture was both firm and soft and the flavors were clean, moist, clear, and octopussy. Words escape me and my notes at this point are hard to read.
The last item I was served was sea urchin:
Ooops, no picture, I'll blame that on the sake. Or on my memory. Or both.
I am so used to San Diego uni that I was surprised and pleased by what I was served this evening. It was darker and less granulated in appearance than what I am used to. It was also less moist, like a thick custard, but the flavor of the uni was deeply concentrated and long-lasting, the texture dense and smooth. A wonderful conclusion to the meal.
As you can probably tell, I had a truly fine experience at Shirahama. Even though I was the only customer that evening who could not speak Japanese, I was treated well by the itamae and his assistant. Some people at yelp complain about the decor and ambience at the restaurant, but the understated interior and the Japanese music in the background seemed appropriate and met all of my requirements. There were no distractions. I go to art galleries to look, to sushi bars to eat.
Honestly, I think it would be a waste to come here with a group to discuss business or politics. This was food that begged for my full attention and rewarded my concentration.
So, if you have some extra money sitting around and want to have real Japanese sushi in a Japanese environment, this place is for you. Sometimes that is just what I want, and I hope to return -- next time I'm in San Diego and have some extra money sitting around.
Sushidokoro Shirahama, 4212 Convoy, San Diego, 92111, (858) 650-3578, open daily 12:00-2:00 and 5:30-10:00. Reservations accepted and encouraged.